English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.
An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.
All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful
The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.
The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual. Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.
Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.
You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.
Practical nonfiction is useful information
One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.
A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.
Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.
Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.
Literary nonfiction is alluring
Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.
Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.
First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.
Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.
The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.
Teach both practical and literary nonfiction
You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.
We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.
Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.
And it can open students to the world.